In this series of articles, I have set out to assess the various paths forward for American higher education. Most of us agree that the status quo is unsustainable, but what comes next? I began by asking whether legacy higher ed—the historic institutions that we know and (used to) love—is a lost cause. If left alone, it probably is, but if made to reform by legislators, perhaps it isn’t, at least not all of it. This sort of external reform is no guarantee for long-term success, but it’s certainly worth a shot for the policy-minded reformers in our midst.
I then considered what it takes to build a new institution from scratch, arguing that certain start-up universities (e.g., the much-celebrated University of Austin) don’t have a solid foundation for the truth-seeking they so earnestly desire. An institution that does have this foundation, however, and that resists the government purse may have a chance to do something great. A handful of such colleges already exist, and we surely need many more of them.
Now, while the legacy-higher-ed-reformers are reforming, and while the new-institution-builders are building, what else can be done? It seems that there is a third main path remaining: higher education that exists entirely outside of institutions. This can take many forms, of course, including one idea from a commenter on my last article:
Rather than focusing on the “institution” perhaps it would be more productive to think about creating small communities of scholars, colleges if you will, who pursue their own areas of interest and take on students as a means of funding their enterprise (and training their successors)? In the end, it is about the faculty.
This is a neat idea that I may take up in an article of its own. For now, though, I turn to a trendier alternative: online education. When most people read that, they immediately think of MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—and I will indeed weigh the strengths and weaknesses of these courses. But there are also newer developments in the online education world, such as the “metaversity,” as well as less formal means of education through video platforms like YouTube. These, too, deserve their own consideration.
But first, the Massive, the Open, and the Online of MOOCs.
Large-scale MOOCs hit the scene around 2008 and quickly gained steam in the subsequent years, so much so that some called 2012 “the year of the MOOC.” Many platforms have been founded in the decade since then, but there is still a Big Four that dominates the market: edX, Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity. These companies put the “Massive” in MOOCs—as researcher Katy Jordan writes in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, “the average MOOC course is found to enroll around 43,000 students.” Some courses, such as Stanford’s Machine Learning MOOC, have well exceeded seven-figure enrollment. Your 300-student physics lecture looks like small potatoes in comparison.
There are pros and cons to the massiveness of MOOCs. On the one hand, high enrollment is an encouraging sign of high educational demand. Apparently, there are many thousands of people out there who seek to go beyond what they were taught in college, and many more that never went to college and want to supplement their high school education. With some exceptions—such as the gender studies, inequality, and climate change courses offered by edX—MOOCs can provide valuable knowledge and skills to students.
On the other hand, the size of MOOCs all but guarantees that the average student will have little to no interaction with his instructor or his peers. This fundamentally changes the nature of higher education, which, historically, has relied heavily on this interaction. To be sure, legacy higher ed has abandoned this model in many ways, too—think the 300-student lecture I mention above—but students can at least see their professor during office hours, attend TA-led recitations, and form study groups with peers that they know in real life.
Most of this goes out the window in a 43,000-person MOOC. Some have disputed this critique, arguing that discussion boards, chat rooms, and “gamification” can make MOOCs more interactive—but the fact remains that these are a poor substitute for regular, personalized interaction with the university community. Higher education is much more than the mere dissemination of information. MOOCs’ massiveness ensures that they will never be a true substitute for brick-and-mortar colleges.
But what if MOOCs weren’t so massive? What if they were just OOCs? Would this make them a viable substitute for higher education? Not so fast—the openness of MOOCs presents its own slew of problems.
“Open” sounds nice in theory. Isn’t it great that anyone, no matter his income or social standing, can enroll in a MOOC? Perhaps, but the issue here is similar to that of lowered admissions standards at traditional universities. Without these standards, there is no way to ensure that students will actually be able to complete the course. Indeed, MOOCs have abysmal completion rates—6.5% on average, according to the Jordan study cited above—which would surely be much higher if the courses weren’t quite as open. How many thousands, even millions, of people have sunk time and money into a MOOC they weren’t prepared to complete?
MOOCs aren’t just open in terms of admissions standards (or lack thereof)—they are also open regarding the courses that students can take. This, as with MOOCs’ massiveness, is a double-edged sword. Students are not saddled with the useless social justice courses that many now have to take at traditional institutions. But is it right for one’s curriculum to be totally open? Should it be all about you, as the very companies’ names imply (e.g., Udemy, Udacity)?
I think not. One of the beauties of core curricula, even the crumbling core I completed at my alma mater, is that they force students to take courses they may never choose to take themselves. Indeed, when done well, they help mold a student’s interests in preparation for a lifetime of learning. My shallow, myopic, 18-year-old self would never have taken a year of literature, a year of philosophy, and a karate class. But my core curriculum required me to do so, and I’m all the better for it. MOOC participants may learn within their interests, but they will likely miss out on the academic breadth offered by core curricula.
Compared to MOOCs’ massiveness and openness, I have the least problem with their online format. Some universities have managed to do online education well, and for fields that don’t rely as much on seminar-style discussion, it can be a decent substitute for in-person learning. This, of course, assumes that students are actually engaged on the other side of the computer screen, just as success in in-person learning assumes that students aren’t browsing ESPN while “taking notes on their laptop.”
In other words, the risk of distraction is higher in online learning, but both formats suffer from this problem. That’s why I ban all laptops, phones, and tablets in my classroom. I was in my undergrads’ shoes not too long ago, and I remember doing anything but paying attention in certain courses.
For those in the humanities and other fields in which in-person interaction is essential (such as my field of music), online education will likely never suffice. Rigorous debate is unavoidably more difficult when interlocutors occupy different boxes on a Zoom call. Critiquing a painting or sculpture becomes exponentially harder online. Music rehearsals are close to impossible. The list goes on.
Bottom line, I do believe that certain fields can operate with some degree of success online. The format has a long way to go, but many companies are dedicated to making it better each day. Who knows, maybe this is the zoomer in me talking, but I’m not as down on online education as some.
Speaking of zoomer technology, enter the metaversity. I learned about this development from an August Inside Higher Ed article, in which Susan D’Agostino reports that “[t]his fall, students at 10 universities, including Morehouse College and New Mexico State University, will attend metaversities—a portmanteau of ‘metaverse’ and ‘universities.’”
The metaverse, as you may know, is an augmented-reality- and virtual-reality-based mode of interacting with others online. This is usually done through those not-so-subtly-dystopic VR headsets made popular by companies such as Oculus. A metaversity takes this technology and applies it to higher education, allowing students to “attend” class on a virtual “campus” and interact with students and professors who appear as animated avatars.
These ten universities have partnered with two companies—VictoryXR and Meta—to deliver the metaversity experience. VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs describes these meta-campuses as “digital twins” of the associated physical campus:
“It’s a digital twin, so it looks exactly like the real thing — to the paint, the glass, etc.,” he later added. “You’re going to get the campus quad, and you’ll have five to seven buildings and the interior of two to three buildings. That’s generally where universities will start with their digital twin.”
Setting aside the rather goofy-looking graphics of current metaverse technology, I see some major problems with the concept. First, they do nothing to avoid the above-described problems with online education, which will necessarily hinder learning, particularly in certain fields. Online is online, whether or not you’re wearing a VR headset. It should go without saying that a virtual campus populated by virtual avatars—no matter how accurately they are “digital twins” of the real thing—is not a true substitute for in-person learning and interaction.
The danger, though, is that people will treat it this way. Online education as we know it has flaws, to be sure, but no one thinks he’s actually on a campus while watching a video lecture. He knowingly looks at a computer screen in his home or other non-campus environment. The immersive nature of AR and VR, however, may change this. Might metaversity students begin to see their virtual campus as more real than the real world? Given the widespread technology addiction plaguing many of our youth, it’s not such a farfetched concern.
What’s more, there is already a critical mass of incidents involving people using this technology and getting into serious accidents—car crashes, falling off a cliff, etc. This is not to mention the documented health effects of excessive VR use, including “vision [damage], disorientation, and even seizures.” Even more concerning is the attempt to normalize communication with virtual avatars. At least you see human faces in a Zoom class—there is something deeply unsettling about interacting with a digitally reconstructed person in a digitally reconstructed campus. Our youth are already plenty separated from reality—why push them further away?
All in all, the metaversity seems to have far more risks than it does benefits. It is exponentially more dangerous than standard online education due to the immersion inherent in VR technology. Universities should proceed with great caution, but if there’s money to be made, I doubt they will.
Learning for Learning’s Sake
MOOCs and metaversities aside, there is an immense wealth of educational content available to anyone with an internet connection. Most of these resources don’t even attempt to approximate a traditional university, but they are valuable for those seeking to learn for learning’s sake. It’s a cliche, to be sure, but we should all be lifelong students. Platforms such as YouTube make that easier than ever before, and they don’t suffer from the same problems as online higher education because they’re not trying to be higher education. Online content is there for the taking, provided that you’re willing to chew the meat and spit out the bones.
“Sounds great, but who has the meat?” you might ask. One of the best sources today is the National Association of Scholars’ new webinar series. We had this idea a couple of years ago after noticing just how many people were dissatisfied with the education they received at their alma maters. “If people are hungry for more,” we thought, “and if the market is flooded with 1619 Project–style pseudo-history, why not produce our own content?”
Thus, the Celebrating America webinar series was born, a two-track series of events profiling the most important events of American history and the most notable works of American literature, all featuring some of the nation’s leading scholars. The history series concluded earlier this year, but you can catch all of the replays on our website. The American literature series is still in progress, and we just launched a brand new series of webinars, the American Innovation series, which is focused on American inventions. If you’re interested in learning more about these topics, I commend the webinars for your viewing.
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